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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thee Phantom's genre-blending screams 'Rap Me Amadeus!'


By MIKE HAMILTON
Special to The Japan Times

Many hip-hop artists spend their days scouring record bins for choice samples to rap over, but rarely do they go out and find an actual orchestra. As rapper Thee Phantom, Jeff McNeill is doing just that.

News photo
Maestro Fresh Jeff: Jeff McNeill, who goes by the name Thee Phantom, will rap with a 10-piece orchestra.

McNeill has played at New York's famed Carnegie Hall and the Kimmel Performing Arts Center in his hometown of Philadelphia, but he chose the theater space at the Ginza Apple Store for his Japan debut. Accompanying him will be a 10-piece Japanese orchestra.

The title of Thee Phantom's new album, "Making of an Underdog," refers to what McNeill describes as a "tough childhood." However, despite the dangers of growing up in a rough neighborhood and what he describes as a broken home, he says his parents' unwavering support of his early interest in music kept him pursing his dream. It's a journey that his new single "The Entertainer," which features opera singer Sophia Jaber, lays out in detail.

"I'm trying to give the listeners a glimpse of the things that drive me as an artist and have helped mold me as a musician," McNeill tells The Japan Times by email. "The more of myself that I'm able to put into the songwriting, the better I feel about the piece."

McNeill says hip-hop hit him "like a ton of bricks" when he heard it in the 1980s — so much so that by his early teens he had tried making his own track by mixing the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. He credits that experiment with putting him on his musical path.

When creating his songs, McNeill writes the scores for every instrument himself and then records those parts in a studio. Live, those songs are performed by what he dubs his Illharmonic Orchestra, so the recorded pieces go to whoever he is playing with first so they can get a sense of what he has in store.

"Having the music prepared helps when I'm doing performances live with musicians that I've never met before," says McNeill. In the case of the Tokyo show, he has already forwarded the sheet music to the Japanese orchestra with whom he will perform.

McNeill's fiancee, who goes by the name The Phoenix, came to Japan in 2009 with fellow hip-hop act Steph Pockets. Their anecdotes from that trip piqued McNeill's curiosity about this country and the more "technologically advanced" music scene here.

The rapper originally intended to come to Tokyo for a show on April 15, but it was canceled after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. With some artists still canceling their performances, McNeill says he is "fearless of the aftershocks" and any perceived threat of radiation. Only his mother, he says, has raised an eyebrow in concern.

Thee Phantom plays the Apple Store in Ginza, Tokyo, on June 9 at 7 p.m. Thee Phantom will shoot a music video while in Tokyo. If you want to take part, meet him at Narita Airport as soon as his plane lands on June 7 at 1:55 p.m. (Flight No. 1010). For more information, visit web.me.com/theephantom5000/theephantom.com.

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